Death by testimony?
The mysterious death of a veterinarian doctor in an Indore hospital, after his complaints of chest pain, has made national headlines. The death has been sensational, not because he was merely 29 years old, or because he was a prison inmate. The sudden death of Narendra Singh Tomar has been sensational because he is one of the key accused in the high profile Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh. <g data-gr-id="60">Its</g> not as if he is the first person related to the Vyapam scam to die a sudden death. The Special Investigation Team (SIT) set up to investigate this scam has itself said in a recent report that 23 people associated with the scam – Tomar being the 24th – have died ‘unnatural deaths’. Some newspapers have contested this number and said the number of deaths has reached a whopping 44!
Although the sheer number is unprecedented, Vyapam is not the first high-profile case to see deaths of those with access to key information. Just a few months earlier, four key witnesses in the sexual assault trial of <g data-gr-id="56">godman</g>, Asaram Bapu faced a murderous attack, and two of whom died. Akhil Gupta, the cook and aide of Asaram, was shot dead in Muzaffarnagar in January this year. Amrut Prajapati was shot dead in Gujarat in June 2014. The complainant’s husband and the Godman’s former Secretary managed to survive murderous attacks upon them.
The number of deaths of those who were accused in the Vyapam scam – whose testimony and information could have eventually led to the kingpins of the corruption racket – has once again brought to the fore the absence of a robust witness protection program in India. Witness protection has off-and-on been discussed in India, from 1958 onwards in various reports of the Law Commission.
While the law provides for punishment for witnesses who turn hostile – as they are liable for perjury and contempt of court – it chooses to turn a blind eye towards the reasons why they refuse to give testimony. It is perhaps ironic that while offenders have legal and constitutional rights, the witnesses do not. When combined with the deeply entrenched nexus that exists in India between the wealthy, the politically powerful and a corrupt police force and judiciary, it is not surprising that witnesses refuse to come forward and testify.
This is a problem that has long plagued justice systems across the world, as crime, wealth and political power have existed in close connection with one another. Most <g data-gr-id="71">organised</g> crime across the world is said to have been carried out under police and political protection, with each segment getting their share of the ‘loot’. Whenever legal cases threatening these power structures have been filed, it is difficult to find witnesses to testify against those who wield the power of wealth and coercion. Even those who may initially agree to testify, often turn hostile due to threats to themselves and their families. This is the reason that legal systems across the world have developed Witness Protection Programs. United States, United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Ireland and <g data-gr-id="68">Philippines</g> are amongst the countries to have well-designed Witness Protection Programs.
The United States has one of the most evolved Witness Protection Programs in the world. Its inclusion in the justice system began with the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1870 to protect those people testifying against the Ku Klux Klan. However, the now well-known United States Federal Witness Security Program, commonly known as the Witness Security (WITSEC) Program, started evolving in the 1960s due to the unsuccessful attempts at getting witnesses to testify against the mafia in New York.
The program aims to keep witnesses and their families safe while they testify at trials and begin to live under a new identity thereafter to prevent them from being attacked even after the trial. Their security is managed by US Marshals (for witnesses who are free) and Federal Bureau of Prisons (for those who are incarcerated). Once the trial is over, the witnesses and their families are relocated and provided new identities, given assistance in housing, health care, and job training until they become self-sufficient. According to the US Marshals service, since its beginning in the 1970s, the State managed to get the conviction in 89% of the cases where the WITSEC program was used. And it is programs like WITSEC that India needs to look <g data-gr-id="73">towards,</g> if it wants to challenge the unholy nexus of crime, wealth and power.
India has an extremely low rate of criminal convictions, and witnesses are known to turn hostile, be intimidated or even be killed during trials. Just the possibility of information has resulted in multiple deaths in the Vyapam scam, let alone actually providing testimony to support investigation and prosecution. With the high possibility of <g data-gr-id="65">acquittal</g> of the accused and threats to one’s own life and safety, why would anyone choose to testify in a court of law, especially against the mighty and the powerful? As the Supreme Court rightly pointed out in its <g data-gr-id="63">judgement</g> in Krishna Mochi vs The State of Bihar, in 2002, that society suffers equally by wrong acquittals, as by wrong convictions. This is precisely the reason that India needs a Witness Protection Program. Let us hope that news of initiation of legislation for the same reaches us, before the news of more deaths in high profile cases.
(<g data-gr-id="48">Atishi</g> Marlena is a social activist and policy researcher, who is a member of the Aam Aadmi Party. Views expressed are personal.)